lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Many a slip

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were caught, so what could they do?
Said the fly, "Let us flee."
"Let us fly," said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

It is true, English is a strange language. The homonyms, homophones and homographs can be bewildering.

You pronounce words that are spelt differently in the same way; you spell the words the same way and pronounce them differently; as if it wasn't enough there are words that are spelt and pronounced the same way but mean different things depending on context.

You think I am exaggerating? Just consider.

Aisle and isle are pronounced the same way but mean different things; ail and ale, blew and blue, cereal and serial. These are all homophones. These are what crossword compilers rely on. Think of the fun they have with 'sow', 'sew' and 'so', or with 'two', 'to' and 'too', or with 'do', 'due' and 'dew'; with 'doe' and 'dough' or 'deer' and 'dear'.

Row might be spelt the same, but it means a line or to propel a boat when pronounced to rhyme with 'roe' (and there is another confusion); and to have an argument when pronounced to rhyme with 'how'. Bow when rhymed with 'how' means something altogether different from what it means when pronounced to rhyme with 'low'. These are homographs. The confusion they can cause is a great source of joy and chance to confound the solver, and crossword compilers take every opportunity to do so. Then there's confusion caused by changes due to tenses. Take 'lead' for instance.

Homonyms are something else. When a word has the same spelling and is pronounced the same way but has different meanings, like bill, fair, pulse or row… the crossword compiler's heart might soar, but we are in trouble.

I was in trouble too, but for a different reason. I was chatting with a friend and got baffled when he said that he is trying to screw up courage to propose to a young lady. I inquired if he wasn't too young, if he didn't need to be settled before he could propose marriage. Surely he'd have to declare his intentions to the young lady and see if she was favourably disposed, before popping the question?

That was first time I came across the usage. It seems the meaning of the word 'propose' has become wildly distorted while I wasn't looking. He meant 'propose' in the sense of professing interest, I think.

To propose means primarily to make a proposal, declare a plan or a course of action for something; to present for consideration; to intend; to put forward or nominate for appointment to an office; or to ask someone to marry you.

The synonyms for propose are to advise, aim, declare oneself, offer, pop the question, project, purport or to suggest.

If we consider it as a noun, proposal means something proposed such as a plan or a supposition, an offer of marriage and the act of making a proposal. Here the synonyms are mostly marriage related – a marriage offer, a marriage proposal, and then proposition.

Ah, proposition is an entirely different thing. As a noun, it means a statement that affirms or denies something and is either true or false; a proposal offered for acceptance or rejection; an offer for a private bargain, especially for sexual favours; and the act of making a proposal, and a task to be dealt with.

As a verb though, there is only one thing proposition means: suggest sex to, or as my Webster primly puts it, to make an indecent or an immoral proposal to.

Young people these days take language and stand it on its head, and it takes old-timers like me a while to figure out what exactly is meant. To me, to propose meant, given the context, offer of marriage. But to my young friend, it meant declaring himself to be enamoured.

Boy: I want to marry you. I want you to be the mother of my children
Girl: But how many do you have?

Twixt the intent and speech, there definitely seem to be many a slip these days. Humour me for being an old fogey and I grant you English is strange, but still: as to the confusion between to propose, proposal and proposition and to proposition, I may feel tolerant, but when it comes to mistaking prepositions and propositions… the mind boggles.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

A right-handed writer named Wright
In writing 'write' always wrote 'rite',
when he meant to write 'write'.
If he'd written 'write' right
Wright would not have wrought rot writing 'rite'.

A nice post Lali, but you could have given examples of crossword clues for the confusing homographs and homophones. Your posts are getting shorter and shorter.

Sir, I grow thinner and thinner, as Psmith says.

9:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes indeed, some of the usage of English today makes me feel positively pre-historic and dinosaurean. In which mode I recall the 'homely brides' wanted in the matrimonial ads. And nowadays I find a lot of bondage used in place of bonding. Being a stickler isn't a very comfortable proposition - all too often one has to control the urge to correct other people's English, including, of course, the spellings on sign boards- one of Neha's favourites was Child Beer!

10:18 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Ash- Giving examples is for another post, I guess. Nice quote and limerick. But do tell, just how long should my posts be? 800 words is the average, I think. Quote Psmith at me, will you? Bah!

Dipali- I bite my tongue and refrain, mostly; unless my favourite bloggers are involved.

Child Beer? Really? I would love to have a go at the adult version of it, I suppose it comes chilled. :-)

11:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I propose we get together and share a cuppa and I promise I won't proposition you. Auntie Lali, please change tacks willya.

11:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhh..confusing indeed! When I first moved here and learned English, I was baffled at the many rules and many more exceptions to the rules. It seemed senseless! A lot of it is still a bit senseless to me, so it's a good thing I decided not to major in English after all. :]

7:04 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Rajesh- Change tack how? Give me a topic then.

Vi- Hi. English is a strange lingo, yeah. I didn't major in English either, I just like words.

4:58 pm  
Blogger Priya said...

I'm back. I'm back. And I've finished reading every letter of all your posts. You awesome lady, you. My favourite Rabindrasangeet too on your blog. It'll take me a while to return to blogging, still grappling with guests and illnesses at home. So here's to a very happy and eventful new year to you and K.

5:24 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Priya- Thanks, angel. Here's wishing your family a great year too. And for you I foresee more frequent blogging(crossing fingers, touching wood and calling on various muses and gods) and please may that be so. Have a blast on the eve and all the days that follow.

11:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

reminds me of a poem in my 3rd-grade English text with a similar message .. well-written

12:38 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Ram- Er, which reminded you of what poem? The limerick or the post? And do tell which poem it reminded you of.

9:09 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ missus em:

both .. and the poem was titled "english is a funny language" .

9:56 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Ram- Hmm, who by? What did it say?

10:17 pm  

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